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Score a cheaper hotel room

Learning how to nab a good hotel at a cut rate is a nifty life skill for all travelers. But nobody appreciates saving a few hundred dollars more than a parent planning a family trip, especially this summer.
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Learning how to nab a good hotel at a cut rate is a nifty life skill for all travelers. But nobody appreciates saving a few hundred dollars more than a parent planning a family trip, especially this summer. According to the AAA’s annual vacation costs survey of over 60,000 food and lodging establishments, the average family of four will spend nearly $270 a day on meals and hotels, to say nothing of record-high gas prices and soaring admission fees to zoos, theme parks, and other family attractions. Lodging rates now average $152 a night, up nearly 8 percent from last summer.

The good news? Savvy hotel shopping isn’t rocket science. Anyone can pick it up in 20 minutes.

Shopping online for a great hotel rate is a lot like searching for a super airfare. No single web site will find the lowest hotel price each and every time. Fortunately, booking a hotel is more straightforward than booking a flight. Since hotel room prices don’t fluctuate as much as airfares do, there’s no guessing game about when to buy. To find the best price, you need to arm yourself with information and then do some talking.

Scenario A: You’ve Picked a Hotel

Step 1: Get a feel for priceJust like when you shop for airline tickets (see ), it makes sense to start with the big three mega booking engines when you compare hotel prices. , , and are so competitive that their lowest quotes are often within just a few dollars of each other.

Step 2: Go to the aggregatorsAggregators mine from a large pool of sources—major booking engines, hotel sites, travel operators, lodging consolidators, you name it— to find the best rates. But since each aggregator mines from a different mix of sources, searching multiple aggregators will often yield varied results. The upshot: You should check as many as you can. If you only have time for two, our favorites are and .

Step 3: Visit the hotel’s web siteIt always pays to compare prices from the booking engines and aggregators to the hotel’s own web site. Some hotels guarantee that their online rates are the lowest you’ll find. And all prices being equal, it’s best to book directly with the hotel and avoid service charges.

Step 4: Call the hotel directlyYou’ve already visited the web site, so why call? Because negotiating is a crucial last step that works more often than you’d think, according to a recent survey of 35,000 Consumer Reports readers. More than 70 percent of respondents who haggled with hotel staff scored a rate reduction or room upgrade. When a hotel isn’t fully booked, reservationists are often empowered to beat any other rate—even its own online rate. To bargain effectively, you must be armed with the information you’ve gathered online. The conversation is like a dance. You ask how much it costs to stay in a particular category of room. The reservationist gives you the rack rate. Next, you ask two key questions:

  • “Is that the very best price you can offer?”
    One of two things is going to happen. The reservationist might hold firm and tell you that’s the best she can do. If you’ve seen a better offer on the web, say so. Very often, this works like a magic password. We’ve seen reservationists shave as much as $40 off their initial offer, simply because we’d done our homework. Like Grandma always said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

  • “Do you have any special packages for families?”
    There might be a great deal for families that you missed online. Family packages sometimes include a discount on a second guestroom, free kid’s meals, comped passes to a local attraction, free pizza and a movie, or a combination of these elements.

Scenario B: You’re Flexible About Brand
Two discount brokers, and , are known for delivering some of the best hotel deals on the web, but there’s one big catch: Neither one will tell you which hotel you’ve got until after you’ve paid. Instead, you approve some basic parameters—general description, location, level of luxury—and they come up with hotels that match your criteria. If you’re willing to relinquish control over brand and book “blind,” you can be rewarded with a terrific hotel at a great price.

Scenario C: You Need A Specialist
Want a fab rate at a hip, boutique city hotel? The name to know is . Unlike most booking sites, Quikbooks only sells hotel rooms—not flights, car rentals, cruises, or packages—and it specializes in very stylish urban digs. We love how you pay nothing until checkout. And Quikbooks guarantees that its price will still be the lowest 72 hours after booking—two days longer than the typical 24-hour promise you see at other booking sites.

What tops our dream list of once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences? A night in the Old Faithful Inn, in Yellowstone National Park. No, wait—make it a weekend at the historic Grand Canyon Lodge, which boasts mind-blowing views overlooking the north rim of the giant abyss. To reserve a room at either of these national treasures, you need to go through , the nation’s largest operator of park-based hotels and restaurants. This is a particularly useful site for planning a summer or two ahead, since the most popular lodges can get sold out that far in advance.

Most pet-oriented travel sites make our fur stand up. Behind every cutesy name lurks a computer-generated list of hotels whose managers simply ticked the survey box that says “pets accepted.” More often than not, reviews have been lifted from a mainstream travel site and don’t even mention pets. So where can you find some genuine doggie love? At , whose “Lodgings Listings” section is segmented into more than 15 categories, from B&Bs and hotel chains to vacation rentals, ski resorts, and campgrounds. You can also narrow your search to find establishments that accept larger dogs (75+ lbs) and cats. We love the “Search By Route” tool. You type in your starting point and destination, and the site pulls up a map flagged with pet-friendly lodgings along the way. If we had tails, they’d be wagging.

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